Jane Perry's "1000 Grandmothers" puppet.
Jane Perry’s “1000 Grandmothers” puppet. Perry takes the puppet out with her every two weeks for an elders caravan at Lake Merritt. Credit: Jane Perry

Nearly four months ago, I was stunned whenever it was so quiet I could hear a bird flying. Now, birds sometimes fly so low they barely miss my head. I love that they are dominating.

I have been focusing on morbidity. Parsing out the language in the obituaries. My uncle, Tom, tells me that at the height of Boston’s Covid-19 spike there were 25 pages of death announcements. Three days prior, it was 17 pages. And those were only the deaths where the family had upwards of $942.35 to pay for an obituary. Our San Francisco Chronicle and East Bay Times have had four to six pages.

Many of the death notices imply or directly mention the virus: “Passed away unexpectedly.” “After a short stay at a skilled nursing facility.” “Died from complications of Covid-19.”

Others make the point of distinguishing from the Covid-19 virus: “Passed away peacefully at home.” “Cancer.” “Peacefully from natural causes.”

Funeral service details are explicit: “Due to the current Covid-19 environment, a Mass and Celebration of Life will be held at a later date.” “Due to Covid-19, the graveside service is strictly limited.” “There are no services planned at this time.” 

Masked, out for air on Manila Avenue, I follow 12 feet behind another walker. She veers to the side and curls up against a fence, nestling in the somewhat overgrown grass blades, and proceeds to look at her phone.

When hiking in Oakland’s Redwood Park, I encounter an unmasked runner on an especially narrow part of the trail. I hold up my hand in the universal signal of stop. The runner respectfully halts, though it took three attempts as he approached too close.

“We cannot pass each other safely,” I tell him.

“I wear my mask at the grocery store, at the bank, the post office, but this is supposed to be the free time. What do you want me to do?” he says.

I ask him to listen with his heart. He comes up with the idea of pulling his shirt up over his nose and mouth. He then proceeds on, in what he said was his “31-mile run.” Did he really mean 31 miles?  A text message pops up on my cell phone screen: “This is an AC Alert from the City of Oakland. Oakland, if you work outside the home or if you’re worried you have COVID, get a test. You can get tested for free at one of the city’s walk-up or drive-through testing locations. Call 311 or go to oaklandca.gov/testing for more information. Reply with YES to confirm receipt.”

The days and dates are getting blurred. Last week I waited, stifling, in my “Moon Suit” as Bob refers to it—rain pants and jacket, worn any time one goes outside to make any type of purchase, then stripping in the garage and leaving it there with shoes only worn outside. I was at the North Oakland Post Office. The person in front of me was taking a while. I just waited, swaying back and forth to occupy myself as I sweated. The patron’s package’s zip code was not registering with the postal system, so the package could not be mailed to that unidentified address. The patron was on the phone with the intended receiver, who was sure that zip was correct—and swearing mad, which I could hear because he was loud. The patron is saying to the receiver: “Well, you just won’t get your money.”

Meanwhile, the patron’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is occupying herself by rearranging the display of for-purchase mailers by color. They are organized by size. She puts back every mailer at her mother’s command. She flaps the hard, laminated social-distancing instructions repeatedly for its sound effect. She is remarkably well-behaved but clearly on the edge herself.

I finally get to the counter. I have, in my rising sheltered-in-place dyslexia, written the incorrect street number on my book package, so now MY address is not registering with the post office either. We are a hot mess.

“While our country is holding its breath, we near and then reach and then surpass 100,000 Covid-19 deaths, and George Floyd’s breath is forcibly stopped.”

Jane Perry

Two days later, I maniacally clean all areas where water comes into the house because I miss swimming so much.

Marie, in New York City, is preparing to work from home after recovering from a serious case of positively identified Covid-19. I am tear-struck hearing her live voice over the phone. At the end of our conversation she tells me she has never in her life seen an apparition, but the previous evening an old man appeared in her kitchen. He was lost. Stunned. He did not know what had happened to him.

I say to Marie, of course he didn’t. That is how people are dying from Covid-19. With no time to process. Maybe not even knowing. Their oxygen levels drop subtly and then precipitously, and then they are gone. Marie said she reassured the man, telling him he was all right, and to go into the light. So many souls in transition in New York City, and around the world. 550,600 dead from the virus as of this writing, and those are just the ones that have been counted.

While our country is holding its breath, we near and then reach and then surpass 100,000 Covid-19 deaths, and George Floyd’s breath is forcibly stopped. First I hear it was a bad check. Buying cigarettes. Then a twenty-dollar bill. Of course, it is the ethnic cleanser and slaver Andrew Jackson who brings the toxic pandemic boil of white supremacy to a head. Sean Monterrosa is shot dead by police in Vallejo. Two days later, Marques Miles “Red Bear” Martinez loses front teeth and breaks his jaw after being shot in the face with a rubber bullet from a police rifle in Santa Rosa. Nine days after that, California Highway Patrol shoot and kill Erik Salgado and wound his pregnant passenger Brianna Colombo in Oakland.

I cannot fit on the front and back of my sign all the names of people who have yet to receive justice. I join several hundred in a religious laying of hands on the police precinct building on 7th Street downtown.

Last Friday, I park across the street from Our Lady of Lourdes Church on the east side of Lake Merritt, masked up. Signs on my car say “Compassion Conscience Justice,” “Black Lives Matter,” “1000 Grandmothers for Future Generations” and “We Will Not Be Silent.” Out the rear passenger window, a puppet symbolizing 1000 Grandmothers rises out and above the roof of my car, her aged tree trunk-lined face and white tendrilled hair woven with leaves and blossoms and baby faces. She exudes calm courage as she presents in her lavender garment for a just and healthy world. This is my routine, here for the Vehicular Hands Around Lake Merritt Elder Response—a car caravan that takes place every first and third Friday through Election Day to embrace Black Lives Matter and insure awareness and participation in the 2020 Census and voting in November. 

During the caravan two weeks prior, a car full of family pulled up next to mine, gleefully calling out their enthusiastic appreciation. The mother, in her traditional African finery, pointed to the 1,000 Grandmothers sign, saying it brought tears to her eyes. Our caravan organizer, Wanda Sabir of Wanda’s Picks Radio, reminds a Channel 5 News crew that Independence Day is not a celebration for her but a day of study in the injustices aimed at African-Americans in this country. 

A ladybug lights on a green leaf that sparkles off the sun, shaking herself off before flying. Tiny tight-fitted, terse fascicles bundled in symmetrical clusters look like a Rubik’s cube puzzle. Two days later they are splayed needles. A soft grey sparrow with milky eyes lies face down into the grated seat of a patio chair. I move her to the lid of the compost bin, where she rests on the headline “Families in Spain Allowed Outside.” The grass between concrete slabs is not grass, but green onion. 

We have been given gifts in this time of multiple pandemics: To remember what we are grateful for. What nature is telling us. How Mother Earth heals. What compassion, conscience, civility, and justice look like and feel like. To remember our ancestors and that we are the answer to their prayers. These gifts come at a great cost. We will be humble in the quiet of our sheltering to know the work we have been called upon to do.

Jane P. Perry’s book White Snake Diary: Exploring Self-Inscribers published from Atmosphere Press April 10, highlighting now more than ever a diary’s documentarian and reflective functions in this time of tragedy and reckoning. She has been interviewed by Paula Whitacre, and since quarantining has had diary-related pieces published in Persimmon Tree, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, and Women Writers, Women's Books. She is an expert on outdoor play. Her book Outdoor Play: Teaching Strategies with Young Children is published with Teachers College Press. Jane is a member of The Society of Fearless Grandmothers and 1000 Grandmothers For Future Generations. She lives as a guest of the Lisjan Ohlone on the unceded territory of Huichin (Oakland). You can find her at janepperry.com.